Several large race riots occurred in the United States in the few years immediately following World War I, including those in Chicago, Elaine, AR, Knoxville, Rosewood, FL and Tulsa. Many of these were part of an international pattern in the Red Summer of 1919. The riots recurred as direct or indirect results of the massive demobilization and economic restructuring that occured following the end of the War. Many blacks had fought for the United States in the war in Europe and returned to a situation where they were treated with disrespect and hostility, in spite of their position as returning soldiers.
Early in the morning of Saturday August 30, 1919, Mrs. Bertie Lindsey (a white woman) was shot in her bed, in North Knoxville by a presumed black intruder. The police arrested Maurice Mays that day and took him to the Knox County jail after Ora Smyth, the only witness to the crime, had identified him as the man responsible.
Angry whites began to gather near the Knox County Jail. Some even entered the building to search for Mays, but the accused man had been moved to a jail in Chattanooga for his own safety. In the evening, the mob outside the jail was about a thousand strong. They decided to storm the jail and lynch Mays. Using large timbers, guns and dynamite, the mob entered the jail and freed the white prisoners.
The jailer quickly called Mayor John E. McMillan who requested the assistance of the National Guard to break up the riot. The first seventeen soldiers to arrive were stripped and beaten by the rioters. An hour later, about one hundred and fifty more soldiers arrived but the storming of the jail continued.
At around midnight, the National Guardsmen heard of several hold ups by a band of blacks in the black section of Knoxville, near Vine Avenue and Central Street. A platoon was sent to the scene and many civilians followed the soldiers.
The white mob then began raiding and looting many businesses, particularly pawn shops and hardware and furniture stores. There was only evidence of blacks breaking into a single establishment. Eventually snipers and the troops began to exchange fire. Hundreds were wounded in the fighting and seven people (only one of them white) were killed. After the riots, many blacks immediately started to leave Knoxville, bringing with them whatever posessions they could carry. Maurice Mays was ultimately convicted and executed for the murder of Bertie Lindsey.
It is not clear whether the charges against Mays were genuine. It seems more likely that the riot was a response to larger issues of racism and a perceived economic threat. As blacks were gaining economic power, whites seemed more eager than ever to keep them 'in their place.' Violence was used as the primary means to this end.